1Giovanni Poleni’s Cabinet of Physics

From the beginning of the eighteenth century, new experiment-based lectures started spreading throughout Europe. These so-called “experimental physics” - or “experimental philosophy” - lectures were extraordinarily successful, not only in universities but in the “salons” and in royal courts as well.

It was within this context that a chair of experimental philosophy was created in Padua in 1738. The new chair was assigned to Giovanni Poleni (1683-1761), mathematician, physicist, but also an expert in several other fields, like classical architecture and philology. The Cabinet of Physics that Poleni set up for his new lectures was located at the Palazzo Bo and it grew to nearly four hundred items. About a hundred of these instruments are still kept at the University of Padua Museum of the History of Physics.

Poleni’s Cabinet of Physics soon acquired an excellent reputation in the whole Europe. The French astronomer Jérôme de Lalande visited it in 1765, stating in his “Voyage d' un François en Italie” that he did not know of “a more beautiful Cabinet of Physics”. As for the Paris Academy of Sciences, it acknowledged Poleni, among other compliments, as the person who brought Padua school of physics “on par with the most well-known schools of this kind”, thanks to its collection of scientific instruments (“Histoire de l'Académie Royale des Sciences”, 1763).

2Glows in the Vacuum - From the electric egg to X rays

Since the seventeenth century, electricity and pneumatics have been connected by a particular link, a field of research where these two branches of physics joined and gave extraordinary results. This “link” is the studying of electrical discharges in rarefied gases, which produce beautifully coloured glows, “glows in the vacuum”. The analysis of these spectacular glows led to the great discoveries of the late nineteenth century, i.e. X-rays, radioactivity, and the first particle, the electron, which marked the birth of modern physics.

Here are presented some of the instruments that illustrate the development of pneumatics and electricity from the seventeenth to the twentieth century, as well as the researches on the “glows in the vacuum” and their twentieth-century revolutionary consequences.

3Pre-cinema instruments

Many instruments, such as optical games and other devices, marked the history of cinema before cinema. They contributed to create a new process of visual alphabetization, an essential premise for the birth of cinematographic show. Such instruments were designed and used throughout the centuries in various contexts, from popular shows to university physics lectures.

From the eighteenth century onwards, the Cabinet of Physics of Padua University also acquired several devices related to the projection of images and to the study of vision and optical illusions. Of course, professors did not distinguish in any way these apparatuses from the rest of the instruments they used in their optics courses. However, we think it is worth gathering here some of these instruments in order to enlighten their significance within the University of Padua. A choice that can contribute to document the history of pre-cinema in a region like the Veneto, which – it is worth reminding it - played an important role in this field thanks to its optical makers, its lanternists and its scientists.